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BWW Reviews: North Coast Rep Opens a New Chapter

North Coast Rep encored its previous hit and the company's first play ever produced, Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical dramedy Chapter Two, last weekend with a roller coaster ride evening that kept the audience riveted. From the first guffaw of the opening dialogue through the painful revelations and satisfying Rom Com ending, this NCR performance delivered some of the finest acting seen this season.

Co-directed by Artistic Director David Ellenstein (who also plays the protagonist George Schneider) and Christopher Williams, the play recreates episodes of Simon's life with characterizations that are almost too comical to believe but nevertheless ring true.

Like an American Noël Coward, Simon hooks his audience right off the bat with clever one-liners that keep coming until the final curtain. The evening started off with Simon's characteristic witty repartee wagging back and forth between George Schneider and his brother Leo, played by Louis Lotorto. Immediately the audience begins to sympathize with the plight of widowed George and to feel skeptical about Leo's almost Machiavellian plans to distract George from his misery. Of course Leo's misguided machinations go wildly astray: everything that can possibly go wrong does so with a combination of Keatonesque slapstick and Shakespearean complications.

The well matched Ellenstein and Williams clearly worked together in perfect synch to create Simon's world with touching honesty and impressive clarity. The action moves forward inexorably - sometimes predictably, sometimes not - but always focusing on the emotional journeys of the characters. At its best, comedy is about exaggeration and pain, and the two co-directors delivered on that premise with this production. As the story progresses from lighthearted comedy to the grim reality of love and loss, revealing the wounds and weaknesses of its characters, Ellenstein and Williams captured the essence of truth at the core of Simon's reality-based work.

Ellenstein, a veteran of such iconic roles as Hamlet, Tevye and Richard III, professes that tackling the dual roles of actor and director is a huge challenge (/san-diego/article/BWW-Interviews-David-Ellenstein-and-North-Coast-Rep-are-Perfect-Together-20150227). Given his virtuoso performance, such difficulties were not only surmountable for him, but he was able to take on the demands without breaking a sweat, at least artistically. From his very first lines, he captured George's engaging personality, flaws and vulnerabilities with touching effectiveness and deep-felt sincerity, without overplaying or sledgehammering a single phrase. This is truly the mark of an experienced, committed and skilled actor.

As George's love interest Jennie Malone, Jacquelyn Ritz tackled her role with a combination of subtle delicacy and fervent passion. Her ardor never ceased, whether she was depicting flirtatiousness, anger, or love-struck adoration. Ritz, who delighted audiences with her portrayal of the infuriatingly erudite maid in this season's Fallen Angels, outdid her previous performance with her engaging, charming and dynamic depiction of the not-so-carefree divorcee determined not to let down her barriers, who impulsively gives in to the volcanic passion bubbling underneath her unruffled exterior.

As Leo Schneider, Lotorto showed he was capable of pranks and pratfalls without being afraid to present the onlooker with an intimate inner view of his character's conflicts and insecurities, which are painfully reminiscent of an old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are being unwound on a reel. His depiction of Leo's failings and deficiencies was genuine and candid, always honest and always appealing.

Mhari Sandoval's comic flair sparkled in her portrayal of Jennie's neurotic married cohort Faye Medwick. She wore her many faults and insecurities unselfconsciously on her sleeve with worried looks, over-the-top physicality and a Texas drawl that belied her New York roots, ingenuously appealing to the spectator's sympathies without seeming insincere or phony. Her every moment on stage was a giggle-worthy delight.

The team of Marty Burnett (set design) and Matt Novotny (lighting) created a harmonious stage atmosphere that was pleasing to the eye, as well as to the nostalgia of audience members who lived through the volatile 1970s and undoubtedly identified with Alina Bokovikova's period costumes. Burnett cleverly constructed a dual set, simultaneously showing George's Central Park West and Jennie's Upper East Side apartments without having the advantage of a dual screen used by film directors at his disposal, and accurately depicting the trappings of the contrasting lifestyle of each character's residence. Novotny effectively alternated between lighting one abode and the other or both concurrently, as the action required. Chris Leussmann's jazzy musical score evoked the atmosphere of the Saturday Night Live of decades past.

At the end of such a spectacular performance, one wonders how actors can learn such a huge quantity of dialogue as rich and demanding as Neil Simon's, with such conviction and passion. The fact that this quartet of virtuoso actors was able to bring this off so superbly is a testament to the superior quality of North Coast Rep's productions.

We look forward to Chapter Three.

Chapter Two runs through Sunday, March 29 (

Photo Credit: Aaron Rumley

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